Thrill of the chase
The first points-to-points followed a day’s foxhunting. John Vincent
Dressed near identically in black boots, white breeches, bright red coats and, most of them anyway, black top hats, these riders would at first glance appear to be taking part in a foxhunt, traditional sport of the British countryside since the 18th century.
But, wait, hunting rarely attracts such a large band of elegantly attired spectators, all neatly corralled behind a rail... and where are the hounds?
The answer is that the riders are competing in an early steeplechase, that typically British and Irish race held over fixed fences and between church steeple and church steeple.
But initial thoughts of a hunt painting are not far off the mark; early pointto-points were originally contested by huntsmen immediately after the hunt ended.
And that is what has been captured so brilliantly in this oil by Leeds-born George Wright (1860-1942), a master of equestrian art. The painter rode to hounds himself and his understanding of the equine form, particular in terms of pace and movement, contributed greatly to the empathy and sensitivity with which he imbued his work.
The 18in by 24in painting, The Steeplechase, is exhibited at this weekend’s Pavilions of Harrogate Decorative, Antiques and Art Fair at the Yorkshire Showground, where it is offered by the Sutcliffe Galleries of Royal Parade, Harrogate, at £8,750.
The first steeplechase, in 1752, is reputed to have resulted from a wager between neighbours Cornelius O’Callaghan and Edmund Blake, who raced four miles cross-country, over stone walls, ditches and hedges, between two local churches in Doneraile, County Cork. This form of “my horse against yours” soon spread to England, where the first reported race involving more than two horses took place in 1792, when Charles Meynell defeated Lord Forester and Mr Gilbert in an eight-mile race from Barkby Holt to Billesdon Coplow, Leicestershire, and back.
The first recognised English National Steeplechase followed in 1830 – a fourmile race in Bedfordshire won by Captain Macdowall on The Wonder in a time of 16 minutes 25 seconds.
The most famous steeplechase of all, the Grand National, was first run at Maghull in 1837, switching to Aintree two years later.
Finally, a few words about the artist, one of at least five children born to George and Elizabeth Wright, among them the artist Gilbert Scott Wright and a pioneer of fashion art, Louise. George moved from Headingley to Rugby in 1901, then to Oxford and Richmond, Surrey, where he rode with the Old Surrey Hounds. In his early years he often combined with Gilbert on calendars and illustrations but exhibited at the Royal Academy and other leading venues in his own right, painting a succession of superb horse portraits and action pictures depicting hunting, coaching and polo.
Huntsmen turn steeplechasers in this oil by Yorkshire artist George Wright, on sale in Harrogate this weekend.